|VII||THE VICTORIAN ERA|
The Victorian era, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of several unsettling social developments that forced writers more than ever before to take positions on the immediate issues animating the rest of society. Thus, although romantic forms of expression in poetry and prose continued to dominate English literature throughout much of the century, the attention of many writers was directed, sometimes passionately, to such issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, the progress of industrial enterprise and the consequent rise of a materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly industrialized worker. In addition, the unsettling of religious belief by new advances in science, particularly the theory of evolution and the historical study of the Bible, drew other writers away from the immemorial subjects of literature into considerations of problems of faith and truth.
The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his History of England (5 volumes, 1848-1861) and even more in his Critical and Historical Essays (1843), expressed the complacency of the English middle classes over their new prosperity and growing political power. The clarity and balance of Macaulay’s style, which reflects his practical familiarity with parliamentary debate, stands in contrast to the sensitivity and beauty of the prose of John Henry Newman. Newman’s main effort, unlike Macaulay’s, was to draw people away from the materialism and skepticism of the age back to a purified Christian faith. His most famous work, Apologia pro vita sua (Apology for His Life, 1864), describes with psychological subtlety and charm the basis of his religious opinions and the reasons for his change from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic church.
Similarly alienated by the materialism and commercialism of the period, Thomas Carlyle, another of the great Victorians, advanced a heroic philosophy of work, courage, and the cultivation of the godlike in human beings, by means of which life might recover its true worth and nobility. This view, borrowed in part from German idealist philosophy, Carlyle expressed in a vehement, idiosyncratic style in such works as Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored, 1833-1834) and On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).
Other answers to social problems were presented by two fine Victorian prose writers of a different stamp. The social criticism of the art critic John Ruskin looked to the curing of the ills of industrial society and capitalism as the only path to beauty and vitality in the national life. The escape from social problems into aesthetic hedonism was the contribution of the Oxford scholar Walter Pater.
The three notable poets of the Victorian Age became similarly absorbed in social issues. Beginning as a poet of pure romantic escapism, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, soon moved on to problems of religious faith, social change, and political power, as in “Locksley Hall,” the elegy In Memoriam (1850), and Idylls of the King (1859-1885). All the characteristic moods of his poetry, from brooding splendor to lyrical sweetness, are expressed with smooth technical mastery. His style, as well as his peculiarly English conservatism, stands in some contrast to the intellectuality and bracing harshness of the poetry of Robert Browning. Browning’s most important short poems are collected in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1841-1846) and Men and Women (1855). Matthew Arnold, the third of these mid-Victorian poets, stands apart from them as a more subtle and balanced thinker; his literary criticism (Essays in Criticism, 1865, 1888) is the most remarkable written in Victorian times. His poetry displays a sorrowful, disillusioned pessimism over the human plight in rapidly changing times (for example, “Dover Beach,” 1867), a pessimism countered, however, by a strong sense of duty. Among a number of lesser poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne showed an escapist aestheticism, somewhat similar to Pater’s, in sensuous verse rich in verbal music but somewhat diffuse and pallid in its expression of emotion. The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, artist, and socialist reformer William Morris were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the adherents of which hoped to inaugurate a new period of honest craft and spiritual truth in property and painting. Despite the otherworldly or archaic character of their romantic poetry, Morris, at least, found a social purpose in his designs for household objects, which profoundly influenced contemporary taste.
|C||The Victorian Novel|
The novel gradually became the dominant form in literature during the Victorian Age. A fairly constant accompaniment of this development was the yielding of romanticism to literary realism, the accurate observation of individual problems and social relationships. The close observation of a restricted social milieu in the novels of Jane Austen early in the century (Pride and Prejudice, 1813; Emma, 1816) had been a harbinger of what was to come. The romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, about the same time (Ivanhoe, 1819), typified, however, the spirit against which the realists later were to react. It was only in the Victorian novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray that the new spirit of realism came to the fore. Dickens’s novels of contemporary life (Oliver Twist, 1838; David Copperfield, 1849-1850; Great Expectations, 1861; Our Mutual Friend, 1865) exhibit an astonishing ability to create living characters; his graphic exposures of social evils and his powers of caricature and humor have won him a vast readership. Thackeray, on the other hand, indulged less in the sentimentality sometimes found in Dickens’s works. He was also capable of greater subtlety of characterization, as his Vanity Fair (1847-1848) shows. Nevertheless, the restriction of concern in Thackeray’s novels to middle- and upper-class life, and his lesser creative power, render him second to Dickens in many readers’ minds.
Other important figures in the mainstream of the Victorian novel were notable for a variety of reasons. Anthony Trollope was distinguished for his gently ironic surveys of English ecclesiastical and political circles; Emily Brontë, for her penetrating study of passionate character; George Eliot, for her responsible idealism; George Meredith, for a sophisticated, detached, and ironical view of human nature; and Thomas Hardy, for a profoundly pessimistic sense of human subjection to fate and circumstance.
A second and younger group of novelists, many of whom continued their important work into the 20th century, displayed two new tendencies. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad tried in various ways to restore the spirit of romance to the novel, in part by a choice of exotic locale, in part by articulating their themes through plots of adventure and action. Kipling attained fame also for his verse and for his mastery of the single, concentrated effect in the short story. Another tendency, in a sense an intensification of realism, was common to Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells. These novelists attempted to represent the life of their time with great accuracy and in a critical, partly propagandistic spirit. Wells’s novels, for example, often seem to be sociological investigations of the ills of modern civilization rather than self-contained stories.
The same spirit of social criticism inspired the plays of the Irish-born George Bernard Shaw, who did more than anyone else to awaken the drama from its 19th-century somnolence. In a series of powerful plays that made use of the latest economic and sociological theories, he exposed with enormous satirical skill the sickness and fatuities of individuals and societies in England and the rest of the modern world. Man and Superman (1903), Androcles and the Lion (1913), Heartbreak House (1919), and Back to Methuselah (1921) are notable among his works. His final prescription for a cure, a philosophy of creative evolution by which human beings should in time surpass the biological limit of species, showed him going beyond the limits of sociological realism into visionary writing.